William Sudell did it with Preston in 1888/89. Fred Pentland did it with Athletic Bilbao in 1929/30. William Garbutt did it with Genoa in 1922/23. Jack Reynolds did it with Ajax in 1918/19.
The list of English managers who have guided a team to an unbeaten season in one of Europe’s major leagues is a pretty brief one. But you can add to it a miner’s son from County Durham who doesn’t often get a mention among the best coaches to come from England, but perhaps should.
In his playing days, Jimmy Hagan had been a brilliant inside-forward for Sheffield United, making over 400 appearances for them and, while he only won one England cap, perhaps a more appropriate monument to his career is the statue that stands inside Bramall Lane.
After his retirement Hagan managed Peterborough and took them into the Football League for the first time in their history, laying on the charm to other clubs in the days when you had to be elected to the elite and thus butter up the electors, rather than merely earning that status.
After that he managed West Brom, winning the League Cup in 1966, but a poor following season saw him leave the Hawthorns in 1967, with a handsome payoff. He used some of that money to set up a driving school, and as he was teaching youngsters how to reverse park, Benfica lost in the European Cup final to Manchester United. The thought of him going from a driving school to the Estadio da Luz was, to say the least rather fanciful.
But by 1970 dissatisfaction among the club’s hierarchy with how Benfica’s squad was performing and behaving led to the conclusion that change was required. And, in the way that football clubs often settle on a ‘type’ of manager, they decided they needed an Englishman to restore discipline and work ethic.
They tried for Alf Ramsey – an ambitious choice given he was the manager of the reigning world champions at the time – but he turned them down and sights were recalibrated. On recommendation from Charlie Mitten, the former Manchester United winger and Newcastle manager, Hagan arrived in February 1970.
Objectively speaking, in terms of tangible achievement his second full season was Hagan’s finest at Benfica. They won the league by ten points, won the Portuguese Cup and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, narrowly losing to Ajax. But in 1971/72 they lost one whole league game: the season after, they lost none.
"Jimmy is still in my heart to this day. I can see exactly why he was so popular with the people of Sheffield. Jimmy deserves this recognition because he was a good player, a wonderful manager and a great man.” Eusebio
There is something about an unbeaten campaign that marvels the soul. Maybe it’s the cleanness of the record, perhaps awe at the grinding consistency it takes to avoid losing, it could be an acknowledgement that this is the ultimate distillation of what it takes to succeed in sport: being good, and being lucky.
The season began with a 6-0 hiding of Leixoes, a game in which Eusebio scored a hat-trick. Hagan’s relationship with the great man, alongside a merciless fitness regime that enabled his players to run other Portuguese teams into the ground, was probably the key to his success with Benfica. The two struck up such an affection that when the statue of Hagan was unveiled at Bramall Lane, a few years after his death, Eusebio travelled to Sheffield for the ceremony.
“Jimmy is still in my heart to this day,” Eusebio said at the time. ”I can see exactly why he was so popular with the people of Sheffield. Jimmy deserves this recognition because he was a good player, a wonderful manager and a great man.”
That victory was the first of 23 in a row, an extraordinary run featuring a wide selection of thrashings: 9-0 against Beira Mar, 5-0 over Belenenses, 6-1 against Uniao de Coimbra. Hagan’s fast, attacking style of play brought rarely-seen entertainment to a club that were pretty used to being entertained.
That said, the wheels of the season looked shakiest as autumn stiffened into winter. Firstly, they were knocked out of the European Cup by Brian Clough’s Derby County, blitzed 3-0 in the first half of the first leg at the Baseball Ground, unable to recover in the return. And in between the two legs of that tie, they faced Porto in the Classico, and were 2-0 down with 12 minutes to play.
But as would often be the case that season, a rapid burst of goals saved them, culminating in an injury-time winner by Humberto Coelho. After the game Coelho, a beefy central defender that Hagan would often send up front in times of goalscoring need, received a ticking off from his mother, offended that her son had not gone to celebrate with her after netting the winner.
Normal service resumed thereafter, and stayed until the next Porto match, which in the context of their other league games was a calamitous failure. They drew 2-2, the first points of the season dropped after a late penalty was awarded to the hosts. Of course, Benfica had won the league title a couple of weeks earlier, so it didn’t matter enormously, but their winning run – which stretched back to the previous April – had been besmirched.
One more draw came, 0-0 in a sleepy affair against Atletico, but in the other games Benfica continued to rack up their cartoon numbers. Farense were beaten 5-0, they thrashed Vitoria de Guimaraes 8-0, and Montijo were hammered 6-0 on the final day.
They had scored 101 goals in just 30 games, only two of which they didn’t win, and they only conceded 13. Their goal difference of was a comfortably greater figure than any other team in the division even scored. They finished 18 points clear of second place: runners-up Belenenses were closer in terms of points to fourth-bottom Montijo than Benfica.
Eusebio finished with 42 goals, winning his second European Golden Boot. Artur Jorge, who would go on to grow a flamboyant moustache and manage both Benfica and the national team in the 1990s, chipped in with 13. But the team was the star, a team fashioned by a highly unfashionable Englishman in 1970s Lisbon.
Hagan would only last a few more months at Benfica, leaving the following September after a dispute with the board over team selection in Eusebio’s testimonial game, but his legacy lives. A legacy of unprecedented brilliance, and an unbeaten season. On balance, it will do.